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Scenes from Black Friday: Crazy here, quiet there, Internet bursting

In many places around the United States, Black Friday shopping wasn't as crazy as in years past. That's because special sales go on for several days now, including Thanksgiving Day itself, and also because more people are shopping online.

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Shoppers wait to enter Macy's to kick off Black Friday sales in New York.

Andrew Kelly/Reuters

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As usual, millions of shoppers zeroed in on Black Friday, the post-Thanksgiving search for good deals that can get more than a little rambunctious as consumers kick off a holiday spending season expected to top $616 billion.

People lined up hours before store openings (some of them in their PJ’s). Squabbles and occasional fisticuffs brought security guards running. Demonstrators used the crowds to backdrop their issues.

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More than 15,000 people lined up to get into Macy’s in New York, and for many people, falling gas prices meant more to spend on consumer items for self and family.

But overall, things didn’t seem quite as crazy as in recent years, according to several reports.

Why? For one thing, many stores now are open on Thanksgiving Day itself, spreading the shopping over more days.

"It just looks like any other weekend," Angela Olivera, shopping for children's clothing at the Westfarms Mall near Hartford, Connecticut, told Reuters. "The kind of crowds we usually see are missing and this is one of the biggest malls here. I think people are just not spending a lot."

The research firm ShopperTrak now predicts that “Super Saturday” (Dec. 20) will be the busiest shopping day of the year.

Meanwhile, online purchases from home or office are becoming a bigger part of holiday-related shopping

As of 3 pm on Black Friday, online sales were up 8 percent from a year earlier, according to IBM Digital Analytics Benchmark. Online sales were up 14.3 percent on Thanksgiving Day.

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Some commercial websites hiccupped as a result. Best Buy shut down its site for about an hour Friday morning. Cabela's, Foot Locker, and J.C. Penney reportedly had website problems as well.

Demonstrators appeared protesting two issues: the non-indictment of white police Officer Darren Wilson, who shot and killed black teenager Mike Brown; and Walmart’s treatment of its employees.

“Hands up, don’t shoot!” became “Hands up, don’t shop!” in several locations around the country. Police report five people arrested in Seattle, where protesters chained doors shut at a mall.

For the third year in a row, the union-backed group OUR Walmart planned protests at 1,600 stores around the country. In Chicago, 11 protesters were arrested for blocking traffic.

The big shopping weekend now has crossed the Atlantic to Britain, where authorities report some of the same problems.

Police were called early Friday morning to help maintain security at some supermarkets and shopping outlets that offered deep discounts starting at midnight, the Associated Press reports. Some of the worst problems were in the Manchester area in northwestern England where police were summoned to seven Tesco supermarkets after disturbances.

Greater Manchester Police Chief Peter Fahy said stores did not have enough security personnel on duty for the after-hours shopping. "This created situations where we had to deal with crushing, disorder and disputes between customers," he said.

Back in the United States, Black Friday has become one of the busiest days of the year for firearm sales.

Of the 10 days on which the FBI has conducted the most background checks since December 1998, two are the last two Black Fridays, writes Philip Bump in the Washington Post.

The sudden flood of background check requests on Black Friday has become a problem for government agencies, he notes. In 2013, 186,000 people were allowed to buy weapons without a background check after the FBI was unable to process their applications within the legal window of three days. 

But for retailers with their eyes on an estimated 140 million shoppers over the four-day weekend, some of whom bring in 20-25 percent of their annual revenue during this period, such problems are part of doing business.

“We are encouraged by what we’ve seen thus far with eager Thanksgiving Day and early Black Friday shoppers lining up for televisions, electronics, cashmere sweaters and toys,” said National Retail Federation president and CEO Matthew Shay. “Reports of record-breaking online sales and store crowds point to a more confident and savvy holiday shopper who knows when, where and how to take advantage of all the promotions retailers are offering.”

“It’s important to remember, however, that despite getting out of the gates quickly, the holiday season is a marathon and not a sprint and we expect retailers to continue to be extremely competitive as they chase after the $616 billion that is on the line this holiday season,” Mr. Shay said in a statement Friday. “Shoppers will continue to make retailers work for their gift budgets as they weigh price, value and convenience.”